Greater Wildwood, NJ Lodge News

District No. 5720

New trends for Elks

In suburban Detroit, 35-year-old Lee Fitzpatrick bypasses a neon-lit clot of clubs and bars, strides into a shadowy alley, through an unmarked door and into his own private paradise. Never mind the giant elk head mounted on the wall.

They are signs of a small, silent social insurgency sweeping through medium-size boomtown cities and suburbs across the nation: young professionals joining the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a 138-year-old fraternal organization most commonly associated with charitable works, veterans' causes and Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners.

Like other fraternal organizations, the Elks have struggled with massive decline in membership as society moved away from Ralph and Alice Kramden and toward Will & Grace. The Elks, whose average member is 65, have lost 600,000 members since 1980 to old age, death and just plain apathy, officials say.

Overall, the Elks are still losing about 19,000 a year as members continue to decline and age. But a youthful burst in membership is helping to stanch annual losses and revitalize faltering lodges.

At Lodge 74 in Hoboken, N.J., officials estimate that 70% of their 468 members are under 40. At the nation's oldest operating lodge, Lodge 3 in San Francisco, 600 of its 800 members are under 40. In Austin, so many young professionals have joined Lodge 201 that membership more than doubled from 210 to 460 in less than two years.

For the first time since World War II, the Elks might just be  well, hot.

Charitable causes, cheap beer

"I love this place. It's fantastic," says Fitzpatrick, a real estate broker sitting at the bar of Elks Lodge 1588 in Ferndale, Mich., next to the lodge's 76-year-old secretary, Jerry Olli.

Young members such as Fitzpatrick say they like the myriad volunteer and community events sponsored by lodges, and the idea that the money they spend on beer supports a charitable organization that hands out more than $3 million a year nationwide in college scholarships. And lodges are oases of unhurried camaraderie, cheap beer, private party rooms and free parking in otherwise overcrowded urban centers  all for an average cost of less than $100 a year in membership dues.

"Where else on a Friday night can you find room for 10 people?" asks Fitzpatrick's friend and fellow Elk, 38-year-old Brian Mettler.

At first, Mettler, an ad agency executive, was skeptical. The Elks? Weren't they the old guys with funny hats? But he says that as word has spread among young professionals, the suburban Detroit lodge has become a great place for networking, and he has hosted industry parties there.
Before they were Elks, they were Corks

Founded: Feb.16, 1868, in New York

Number of lodges nationwide: 2,100

Motto: Elks care, Elks share

Charitable giving: Since 1878, the Elks have given away more than $3.5 billion to charitable, welfare, educational and veterans programs. They award an estimated $3.3 million in college scholarships a year.

Famous Elks:

* Harry Truman
* Gerald Ford
* Lawrence Welk
* Clint Eastwood

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by Charles Vivian, a stage singer who arrived in New York from London in 1867 at age 25 only to discover New York's "blue laws" closed every bar and restaurant in the city on Sundays.

According to the Elks guidebook for new members, "this brand of forced idleness was not to Vivian's liking as he had to have a constant diet of friends, laughter and song."

Soon, Vivian established a small social group of theatrical friends he called the Jolly Corks.

As the group grew, it quickly adopted a charitable purpose, at first to help performers and their families during financial droughts between jobs. The group decided to formalize the charitable and social society and chose the name Elk (the bear, beaver and fox also were considered) as a distinctly American emblem, and because "the elk preyed upon no other species ... but it would fight valiantly in defense," the guidebook says.

Even the homey kitsch of the typical lodge  wood paneling, vinyl bar stools, aforementioned elk's head  is a welcome relief from overly slick, trendy bars and clubs, members say. Not that young professionals are shunning those trendy bars. Many lodges are centrally located, providing perfect jumping-off points for friends to meet for the first drink of the night before heading out.

Everybody into the pool

"We're sitting on a hill with a beautiful view of the city," says Rick Gonzales, 52, a member and official at Austin Lodge 201. "Our lodge was a well-kept secret."

That is, until Amy Rogers needed to cool off. Rogers, 41, discovered the lodge when she tried to sneak into its pool one hot day in 2003. Instead of kicking her out, an older Elk invited her into the lodge, bought her a few drinks and introduced her to other members.

"I fell in love with the place immediately," she says. She joined on the spot and told the first friend she ran into: "You're not going to believe the oasis I found." Membership grew through word of mouth.

These days, lodge dinners can attract a mix of liberal Austin lawyers in their 30s, young couples and old war veterans and widows in their late 70s. "Somebody said it's like hanging out at the frat house with your grandmother," Gonzales says, laughing.

Now the lodge bar serves $100 bottles of Lagavulin, a single-malt scotch favored by young brokers, along with cold beer and barbecue.

Perhaps the ultimate proof that the Austin Elks have earned a spot in the hip city scene is the fact that a band described in one review as "wild, sloppy, out of control punk" played Lodge 201 during a party that featured Jello Biafra judging a bikini contest.

Most Elks are ready to embrace change. "One of the common things I heard from our current members is 'Jim, we're old and there's no one to replace us,' " says Louis Grillo, the Grand Exalted Ruler (just call him Jim), or national Elks president. "We realized we have to focus more on young people so there will be somebody to take over.'"

But there are some things so quintessentially Elk that they may never change. Recently, when an idea was floated that it might be time to drop the dramatic officer titles, like Esteemed Loyal Knight and Grand Exalted Ruler, older members protested. The subject was dropped. And Grillo says charity and community activism will always be central to the order's reason for being.

Older Elks are finding that the new members like the traditions, even the elaborate secret initiation ceremony and the 11 p.m. toast to Elks members who have died.

"We're thrilled to have these young people here," Olli says. He is encouraging younger men and women in the Ferndale Lodge to run for officer positions.

Rogers, the woman who started it all in Austin, may be the only one looking back on the good old days  of 2003. She notes, with a trace of sadness in her voice, that there are a lot more people in the swimming pool that was once all hers.

Contributing: Tamara Audi reports daily for the Detroit Free Press.

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